Lerner all business and not accustomed to losing New prospective NFL owner has displayed golden touch

November 18, 1993|By Jon Morgan and Ken Murray | Jon Morgan and Ken Murray,Staff Writers Staff writer David Conn contributed to this article.

While he was rescuing Maryland's largest bank, and a good part of Baltimore's financial infrastructure, Alfred Lerner acted like a human typhoon, brushing aside key executives, treasured operating units and bad loans like so much debris on a beach.

Mr. Lerner's actions during his stormy tenure at MNC Financial Inc. were consistent with the tough persona of the cigar-smoking ex-Marine. Friends, however, say he has a gentler side. Such as pledging $10 million to a hospital last month. Or putting aside his empire building to spend a long day last year at the bedside of a college roommate as he underwent open-heart surgery.

One thing critics and friends agree on about the 60-year-old Cleveland executive: He is unlikely to get involved in a fight he doesn't think he'll win, and his decision to join in Baltimore's NFL bid may mean he knows something that the prognosticators don't.

Mr. Lerner filed an application Monday as the third potential team owner vying for a franchise here. He quickly won the endorsement of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who recruited him.

"The guy's successful, no question about that, and coming in at the last moment he must have some ideas of how to get the franchise," said John R. Hershey Jr., a senior vice president with Ferris, Baker, Watts, a Washington-based financial services firm.

"He's brilliant. Everything he's touched has turned to gold," Mr. Hershey said.

His Midas touch will be put to the test Nov. 30, when the owners of the NFL's 28 teams meet in a Chicago suburb and award one more expansion franchise. Baltimore is competing with Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis.

The last time the team owners met, Oct. 26, they gave one franchise to Charlotte, N.C., but could not agree on the second. One problem: The prospective owners of front-running St. Louis' bid had fallen out of contention a few days earlier, and a new group was rushed in.

With St. Louis' problems likely to be fixed, Mr. Schaefer decided that Baltimore's only hope was to make a change among the proposed owners. Neither of the existing applicants, Florida-based financier Malcolm Glazer or a group led by Baltimore-born retail executive Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, had engendered much support from NFL owners.

Mr. Lerner had expressed an interest in a franchise several years ago, but deferred, in part because he didn't want to be in a public competition with other Baltimore investors.

"He made it clear to the governor that he would not engage in any kind of beauty contest with a whole bunch of ownership groups, but if sometime in the future he was willing to endorse him, he would be interested," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

With Mr. Lerner, the governor found a man familiar to many in the NFL -- he owns 5 percent of the Cleveland Browns -- and capable of paying for the team. Forbes magazine ranks Mr. Lerner among the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $770 million.

Mr. Lerner has declined several requests to be interviewed for this article.

A review of federal documents reveals $408 million in stock in just a few of his largest publicly reported investments, the credit-card issuer MBNA Corp. of Newark, Del., real estate investment trust Town and Country Management Co. of Baltimore., mega-bank NationsBank of Charlotte and the Browns.

Over the past year, he also has sold $252 million worth of stock in Progressive Corp., a high-risk auto insurer based in Ohio.

Close to Modell

It is his holdings in the Browns, probably worth about $5 million, that may be of the greatest interest to Baltimore sports fans. He is a close friend of Browns owner Art Modell, who has flown to many away games aboard Mr. Lerner's private plane. He often can be spotted on television during Browns games in the owners box, smoking his trademark cigars.

Mr. Modell is a member of the Expansion Committee, and has supported St. Louis for the second team. But if he backs his friend and partner, it could sway some votes on the 12-man joint Finance and Expansion committee that will recommend who the second city should be.

"Art is very well thought of by everybody in the league. And with Art Modell pulling for you, it's a big factor," said New York Giants co-owner Bob Tisch, who called Mr. Lerner "a first-class guy."

Mr. Modell declined to comment. Some Baltimore backers fear he may be reluctant to support the city if it means losing Mr. Lerner as a partner on the Browns.

One source in the league, who asked not to be identified, cautioned that, although Mr. Lerner is well-known and liked by some team owners, "I wouldn't make it look like he's one of the family."

Though not a resident, Mr. Lerner could be considered a member of the Baltimore corporate community. He got his start here, selling furniture for $75 a week, and made much of his fortune in Maryland banking.

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